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The interconnecting stories of the Buckman family and friends trying to raise kids (of all ages) sees Gil (Steve Martin) in the middle of it all, dealing with the often extreme emotional issues of his own three children. Full of doubts, he questions his role and ability as a father while his patient wife Karen (Mary Steenburgen) announces she’s pregnant with a fourth on the very same day Gil has quit his job in sales. And that’s all he needs. One more kid. As it is, one already needs therapy, another likes to kiss all the boys in her elementary school class and the youngest tends to hit things with his head. Nothing to worry about.
Meanwhile, we meet Gil’s sisters. Helen (Dianne Wiest), a lonely, divorced bank manager is trying to do right by her rebellious teen daughter (Martha Plimpton) and young son Garry (Joaquin Phoenix), and Susan (Harley Jane Kozak), is married to Nathan Huffner (Rick Moranis), a cognitive scientist more interested in developing their daughter’s intelligence than letting her just be a kid. None seem to have the answers for how to be the best at parenting. But it’s the questions that make it so much fun.
Directed by Ron Howard, Parenthood disguises itself as a comedy but is in fact a touching, authentic portrayal of love and family that has its shares of laughs but is much more centered on characters and relationships than on site gags and silly one-liners (though one moment with a vibrator is, well, stimulating), creating an honest, often very emotional roller-coaster ride that most anyone can relate to, big family or not. Martin, who is always effective, carries the film with a sincere performance, boosted by an ensemble cast that plays with stereotypes and tropes but stays just close enough to reality to keep this one of the best films about family ever made. And like every movie, it has one great moment. It’s about the dads.
The role of fatherhood has always been a challenge for Gil, and that only becomes more difficult when he and Karen realize their son Kevin (Jasen Fisher) is distressed beyond his capabilities to handle, believing he might need therapy. Gil is further stressed about how to handle the financial responsibilities of raising another child, but never shirks on his part, continuing to be the absolute best father he can be, even taking up the role of a clown for Kevin when the hired one doesn’t show at his birthday party. He ends up doing better than the real one would have anyway.
Gil also has a brother, a drifter-type named Larry (Tom Hulce) who is far removed from Gil, living his life on quick-money schemes and high risks yet remains a favorite of their father, the stalwart and traditional Frank (Jason Robards). Larry has got himself in some serious trouble, showing up unexpectedly with his little son named Cool (Alex Burrall), the product of an affair with a Las Vegas showgirl. He desperately needs cash to pay off a gambling debt, and worse, if he doesn’t get the money, Larry claims he will be killed. Naturally, the news caused Frank great sorrow and conflicts him on how to deal with this sudden crisis. He struggles with a choice and one day, at a kid’s ball game, he confiding in Gil.
Franks mentions how when Gil was a baby, there was a week when it seemed he might have polio, and Frank confesses that for that time, he hated Gil, or rather the pain of having to go through the waiting, wondering if his son would make it. He goes on to describe the burden of being a father, that the caring, the worrying, and the pain of taking care of a child doesn’t stop when you’re eighteen, or twenty-one, or forty-one, or sixty-one; it never ends and is always frightening. There is no end zone, you never cross the goal-line, spike the ball, and do a touchdown dance. Never. He is 64 and Larry is 27, and still, the boy is his son. That means something. He is still a father and the end zone moves farther away.
What makes the moment so impactful is authenticity of it all. Robards is simply the greatest thing about this movie, at least in terms of giving significant weight to the theme. The eldest and patriarch, his presence throughout truly grounds the film, even with its great sense of humor. The moment is a terrific scene that finally bonds this father and a son, both dealing with their children in different ways but finding a connection that brings them closer.
Steve Martin is one of our greatest comedians, but as such, he is also a gifted actor, and while he rarely commits to drama, when he does, even for just a few scenes here, he really finds the right tone and absolutely convinces as a man barely keeping afloat but finding every possible way to keep clawing at the water. Parenthood is a wonderfully written and acted film that is as effective now as it was decades ago, and this moment at a kid’s baseball game is one reason why.